AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Nilo Cruz
Directed by Amy Gonzalez
Presented by TheatreWorks
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA / (650) 903-6000

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Nilo Cruz bases his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Anna in the Tropics," on a relatively little known historical fact: When they began moving to the United States in the late 19th century, Cuban cigar-makers brought several traditions with them. Among them was the employment of lectors, who would read to the workers, many of whom were illiterate. The lectors read not only newspapers but also great works of literature.

In "Anna in the Tropics," a new lector from Cuba reads Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" to workers in a family-owned cigar company in Tampa, Fla., in 1929. In the TheatreWorks production, the handsome Juan Julian (David DeSantos) and "Anna Karenina" ignite a range of emotions in the workers. The Russian story of an adulterous love affair resonates particularly with the married Conchita (Vilma Silva), one of the owners' daughters. She's a romantic who knows that her unimaginative husband, Palomo (George Castillo), is having an affair, and she soon enters into her own affair with Juan. Her younger, unmarried sister, Marela (Isabelle Ortega), secretly longs for Juan, too. Others involved in the mix are the two women's good-hearted parents, Santiago (Apollo Dukakis) and Ofelia (Alma Martinez ); and Santiago's half-brother, Chechˆ© (Tommy Gomez ), who opposes the lector and who wants to mechanize the factory even though people would lose their jobs.

Cruz's 2002 play won the Pulitzer over Edward Albee's "The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?" and Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out" even though it didn't run on Broadway (unlike the other two) and none of the five judges had actually seen it. They had only read the script. Its highly poetic, descriptive language probably reads well on the page, but taking it to the stage is another story. It seems improbable that these characters would talk that way; consequently, the language seems affected, unnatural.

On the other hand, director Amy Gonzalez and her outstanding cast go a long way toward giving the play believability, especially in the second act, when passions and conflicts intensify. Silva, a mainstay at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is particularly noteworthy as the unhappy, unfulfilled Conchita. Ortega also is memorable as the younger, more impulsive Marela.

Fumiko Bielefeldt's '20s costumes are chic, especially for the women and Juan. Duke Durfee's set, Michael Palumbo's lighting and Cliff Caruthers' sound, along with Melinda Moreno-Miller's choreography, also are first-rate. TheatreWorks even brought in a cigar-rolling consultant, Jose R. Sanchez, to add authenticity to the staging.

Despite all the good work by the TheatreWorks actors and designers, I believe both "The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?" and "Take Me Out," in that order, are better plays that "Anna in the Tropics." I also prefer Cruz's "Two Sisters and a Piano" (the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production featured Silva) to "Anna in the Tropics."

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